April 13, 2008

Rosslin's Mistake and the Easter Bunny

As is so very often the case, Battlestar Galactica presents its viewers with what seems to be a wonderfully cutting conundrum. There is, though, a great consistency there.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the second episode of this season yet, you'll want to skip this post. To protect your enjoyment, I've written the background in white type -- mouse over the text to read my summary of the background. But skip the post altogether if you haven't seen and care about watching the episode.

Near the end of last season, Starbuck flew her ship down a gravity well and apparently exploded. Later, the Cylons ambush the fleet, and Starbuck appears out of nowhere to help save the day. She re-lands on Galactica and reports that in the "six hours" she's been gone, she went to Earth and back, but doesn't recall exactly how that happened. There are some very interesting and suggestive photos, but her ship doesn't have any telemetric data or even any signs of use -- accounting for the recent battle, it seems to have just rolled off the factory floor and have never been flown before. It seems to have literally gone back in time. President Roslin has her thrown in the brig (Roslin's usual solution to most problems) and then she and Adama debate what's going on. Roslin is suspicious that this is all a Cylon trick. Adama can't stand the idea of Starbuck in the brig and wants to free her. Roslin says, "Oh, I want to hear this. I want to hear the great atheist Admiral Adama tell me that a miracle just happened." Adama refuses to do that but offers no explanation of his own for what's going on.

It's that last quote, in boldface, that got me so amused. I think Adama reacted to the bizarre circumstance exactly the way an atheist would. He cannot identify a rational, scientific explanation for what has indisputably happened. The evidence is right before his eyes -- it appears to be a resurrection, something that all reason, knowledge, and experience tells him is flatly impossible. His knowledge of the people involved tells him that no one has been lying to him, so the theory of deception doesn't seem to fit. So he has to open his mind to other possibilities, things that neither he nor anyone else has thought of.

One of those possibilities is that his atheism is wrong and that some super-powerful entity has intervened to accomplish what seems impossible. Rosslin wants to call that intervening entity "the Gods," but Adama does not have enough information to either refute or agree with that theory. So instead he merely leaves the possibility open while continues to try and figure out what's going on.

Roslin misunderstands Adama's atheism. Her mistake is the same one that many real-life believers do when addressing atheists: they conflate an affirmative disbelief with a lack of belief.

A "strong atheist" in Adama's position would affirmatively disbelieve in the Gods, positing a world view in which the Gods cannot possibly exist. And from such a person, a statement that a reasonable explanation for an unexplained event was miraculous would indeed be extraordinary. But not so from a "weak atheist," who offers the more modest world view that there is no evidence of the Gods' existence. (Note that if Adama were an agnostic, he would identify things that could be evidence of the Gods' existence and not know the significance of that evidence one way or another. But Adama is not agnostic. This situation, however, might turn him into one, into someone who genuinely does not know.)

Whether you believe in God or not, you probably don't believe in the Easter Bunny. If so, you are an "Easter Bunny atheist." It does not take much belief or faith to be an "Easter Bunny atheist." The evidence in favor of the Easter Bunny is so minimal that the truth of the "Easter Bunny theory" can be disposed of and not later reconsidered without a second thought. But, if you woke up early Easter morning and with your own eyes saw a four-foot tall rabbit depositing multi-colored eggs throughout your house, you might reconsider that position. You might entertain other ideas, as well, such as that a friend was playing a trick on you or that you were hallucinating. But if you could determine that you were not hallucinating and that no one had played a trick on you, then maybe you'd become at least an "Easter Bunny agnostic" if not an actual believer in the Easter Bunny.

Atheists, if they are intellectually honest, must concede that if they were presented with a truly miraculous set of circumstances, that they would at least be willing to serious consider the possibility of divine activity. True miracles, though, would have to be pretty carefully defined. Someone getting better when they are sick and medical science says that their situation is hopeless is not a miracle. It is a case of medical science showing the limits of its knowledge and abilities.

A problem with explaining things by resort to divine intervention is that divine intervention can explain anything, so it is actually not a very intellectually satisfying tool. So the atheist will try, hard, to find a non-divine explanation for a phenomenon -- just as you would try, hard, to find an explanation for the sudden appearance of those eggs in your house that did not involve the activities of a real Easter Bunny. But until a reasonable theory did manifest, you'd have to concede that the Easter Bunny hypothesis might deserve at least as much consideration as other theories. Adama's response to the very bizarre, at least initially inexplicable, and emotionally overwhelming set of circumstances in which he finds himself makes perfect sense to me -- and is perfectly consistent with an atheistic point of view.

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